The Los Altos City Council last week put the brakes on a proposal to raise speed limits on several city roads.
The Aug. 13 decision came after a city traffic survey – conducted in late 2012 through early 2013 – resulted in a proposal to increase speeds by 5 mph on 18 of 19 city road segments. One segment along Grant Road – ending at Homestead Road – called for a 10 mph hike, from 25 to 35 mph.
Prior to rejecting the proposal, Councilwoman Val Carpenter called speed-limit increases “an endless upward spiral.”
“To me, what’s much more important is to have our residential streets be as safe as possible for pedestrians and bicyclists – especially children traveling to and from school – than to increase through-put for commuters,” she said.
The survey was required under California Vehicle Code and California Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices regulations mandating the re-examination of city speed limits at five-, seven- and 10-year intervals. Proposed speed limits, according to a city staff report, are determined “at the nearest 5 mph increment to the 85th percentile speed of (observed) free-flowing traffic” on affected road segments. Per state regulations, cities can reduce determined speed limits by no more than 5 mph based on factors such as a road’s accident rates.
The report also noted that state regulations require a valid traffic study – and that cities approve speed-limit adjustments – prior to radar enforcement by police. The only speed enforcement method currently available to police is “pacing,” which requires a police officer to trail a violator to measure speed.
More than 20 residents spoke out against the proposed speed increases at the council meeting. Several of them cited safety for pedestrians and bicyclists – and particularly children – as their top concern.
Cuesta Drive resident Roger Hayes called for the installation of a radar feedback sign as a traffic-calming measure instead of raising his street’s posted speed from 25 to 30 mph.
“(Drivers) hit the brake pedal when they see that flashing 25 (mph sign),” Hayes said. “It’s miraculous. … We think it’ll work. We think it’ll ease the burden on the police department and it’ll make all of the problems go away.”
Covington Road resident Geoffrey Spencer – the father of four – noted that it was “sad that 85 percent of the people driving down my street are going 10 mph or higher” than the posted speed limit.
“I think that even if we’re going to keep the speed limit where it is, something needs to be done to slow people down,” he said, suggesting the use of a radar feedback sign as a potential traffic-calming device for his street.
Cameron Hamblin, another Covington Road resident, added that commuters cutting through Los Altos are partly to blame for excessive speeds.
“(Speed-limit increases) will only benefit the people who live outside of this town,” Hamblin said.
Los Altos Environmental Commissioner Gary Hedden, speaking on his own behalf, offered potential measures to reduce speeds, such as narrower roadways that force drivers to slow down.
“It’s harder to go fast in a narrow space, especially if you’re texting,” he said, drawing chuckles from those in attendance.
He added that raising speed limits to allow enforcement by radar “defies common sense.” He encouraged residents to voice their concerns to state lawmakers in an effort to change state requirements.
Council says no
Councilmembers appeared united in their opposition to the proposed speed-limit increases.
Councilwoman Megan Satterlee told residents that while she wasn’t supporting an increase to current speed limits, she was interested in re-examining the possibility of raising the limits from 25 to 30 mph along Grant Road and one section of Fremont Avenue – between Grant and Highway 85 – in the future.
“The way those roads are set up, I think they can support 30 mph, so it’s worth the discussion,” she said.
Mayor Jarrett Fishpaw cautioned that the council would go through the same exercise in future years because of the city’s requirements as set forth by the state. He added that it’s the responsibility of residents to set a good example.
“I think it’s important to note that a lot of the people who are driving on streets near your homes are individuals who live near your homes. … It is us in these cars who are traveling above the speed limit,” he said.
Carpenter added that the speed-limit issue begins with the law itself.
“I just want you all to understand here that the real villain is not the city staff or the city council, it’s the state’s 85th-percentile rule that basically lets the fastest drivers set the speed limits on our residential streets,” she said. “That’s kind of like the fox guarding the henhouse.”